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History Of The Great Kilt
The Great Kilt is known in Gaelic as the feileadh beag (little wrap) to distinguish it from the feileadh mór (big wrap), the belted plaid. There is some debate about exactly when the kilt was first worn and who created it. There has been much written about a 1725 Englishman named Thomas Rawlinson, owner of an iron works in Glengarie and Lochaber, as being the the 'abbreviator of the feileadh mór to the feileadh beag. And many Englishmen have been proud to boast that it was Rawlinson who invented the modern kilt. But not so fast. The Armorial Bearings of the Chief of the Skenes (1692) clearly shows a man wearing a feileadh beag. The story of Rawlinson has since been disproven by scholars to the great delight of Highlanders.
Through the works and efforts of historical scholars we can find the first known reference to the kilt as a mode of dress in 1594, in "The Life of Red Hugh O’Donnell". O'Donnell was in some distress and an Irish Corps of Hebrideans came to his aid. In his account of the event, he provides the following description of his rescuers:
“They were recognized among the Irish soldiers by the distinction of their arms and clothing, their habits and language, for their exterior dress was mottled cloaks of many colours with a fringe to their shins and calves, their belts were over their loins outside their cloaks."
The feileadh mór has become known as "The Great Kilt". It was made from wool, often grown on one's own sheep. It could take a year to shear and spin enough wool to make one kilt. The yarn would then be taken to the local weaver to weave into cloth.
Wool, then and now, is not very different. Most lengths of wool ended up being about 9 ells long (just over 9 yards) and sometimes as much as 12. Any more would be too much to work with, not to mention extremely cumbersome to wear. So a man wanting a Great Kilt would ask for "The Whole 9 Yards", or 9 ells as the case may be, introducing the concept that a man must have 9 yards of cloth to make a Great Kilt. However, remember one thing: the tartan of ancient times was 27"-30" wide, which is the width provided by ancient looms. To make a Great Kilt, the 9 ells would be cut in half to create 2 pieces of tartan, single width (27"-30") wide and 4.5 ells long. These two pieces would then be stitched together to make 1 Kilt, 54"-60" wide and 4.5 ells long. Today's looms can weave cloth to a double width, 54"-61" wide, eliminating the extra step of buying 9 ells. But the concept of 9 yards for a Great Kilt is still practiced and favored by many reenactors.
The Tartan
The woven fabric was often left in it's natural state of color; in blacks, whites and browns. But many weavers would offer to dye the fabric with colors made from local berries, roots and nuts. Creating local and clan patterns of color, which we recognize as Tartans. But they weren't so generic as one might think.
The Tartan did indeed originate in Ireland, and it was then introduced to the then unnamed country of Scotland by the Scots, who moved from Ireland to re-found their ancient kingdom, Dalriada. It was they who gave Scotland its name. The very first form of tartan is nothing like its modern day counterpart, being a type of shirt that ended just above the knee, known as léine in Irish Gaelic. It is generally accepted that it was made of linen, and although the earliest references to this garment describe it as light-colored, it may have been of a darker yellow shade which led to the English describing it as a saffron shirt.
In the 16th Century there are many descriptions of the léine and comments made by a French visitor to the country in 1556 are typical:
They wear no clothes except their dyed shirts and light woolen coverings of several colours.
This suggests the first attempts at making a distinctive pattern with the material of the coverings - the plaid. However, there is no evidence to suggest that after this time, the Scottish Gaels carried on the Irish practice of making the léine with these stripes.
In later times, colored stripes were incorporated into the léine to indicate the rank of the wearer; the first attempts at what is now known as tartan.
  • A High King wore seven stripes, one of these being purple - the color of royalty.
  • The Ollamh (chief man of learning) wore six on his (even then, learning and scholarship was held in very high regard.) However, the shirt gradually went out of use in favor of the plaid.
In 1645, at the Battle of Kilsyth, Montrose instructed his men to put away their plaids and to tie the ends of their shirts between their legs. But the men who weren't Irish or didn't wear the shirt as a result of the ruin of the Irish linen trade, had no choice but to wear their plaids. And wool, which before had been a rare commodity in the Highlands, was now becoming abundant thanks to the growing number of sheep herds in the land. And so, the plaid grew from being little better than a rug to a long piece of material between 12 and 15 feet in length, which the Highlanders would pleat round their waists in folds, pull over their heads like a hood and use as a blanket at night. Although the léine was still in use, it was now used as a covering for the upper body while the plaid was used for the lower half.
By 1730 the patterns had evolved from simple stripes and patterns into what today would be called tartan, from the French word tartaine. And even royalty were getting in on the act. By 1538, records showed that James IV had learnt Gaelic and his son, James V, adopted a variation of the highland dress, wearing a short Highland jacket made of velvet, tartan 'trews', and the léine. The phrase 'Heland tertane to be hoiss' refers to a kind of tight trousers, or hose, a pair of which survives to this day. However, although the dress of the average Scot seems to have been standardized by then, the sett (the pattern of the tartan) of each clan was not; subtle variations of the same clan tartan were still to be found.
Around the year 1618, evidence suggests that the setts became standardized. This became necessary as more often than not, a particular pattern would be identified as the tartan of the predominant clan of a local area. In 1703, Martin Martin commented on the skill of the weaver:
The Plad wore only by the men is made of fine wool, the thread as fine as can be made of that required in sorting the colours, so as to be agreeable to the nicest fancy. For this reason the women are at great pains, first to give an exact pattern of the Plade upon a piece of wood, having the number of every thread of the stripe on it. Every isle differs from each other in their fancy of making Plaids, as to the stripes in breadth and colours. This humour is as different through the mainland of the Highlands in so far that they who have seen those places is able, at the first view of a man's Plaid, to guess the place of his residence.
Act of 1746 - Abolition of Highland Dress
Liam Neeson in "Rob Roy"The Great Kilt enjoyed popularity until the Act of 1746 banned all forms of Highland Dress except for soldiers in Highland regiments. The "Act for the Abolition and Proscription of Highland Dress" declared that:
From 1st August 1747 "... no man or boy within that part of Great Britain called Scotland, other than such as shall be employed as Officers and soldiers in His Majesty's Forces, shall, ... wear or put on the clothes commonly called Highland Clothes ..." ... the plaid, philabeg, or little kilt, trews, shoulder-belt, or any part whatsoever of what peculiarly belongs to the Highland Garb. ..." " ... every such person so offending ... shall suffer imprisonment ... and being convicted on the second offence shall be liable to be transported ... beyond the seas, there to remain for the space of seven years."
According to some historians, orders were given immediately to the troops after the passing of this Act were to "kill upon the spot any person whom they met dressed in the Highland Garb." That Act was repealed in 1782. It was then little kilt or philabeg (the feileadh beag) which grew in popularity rather than Great Plaid (the breacan feile or feileadh mor).
The ban was enacted for several reasons. First and foremost to break up Highlanders so they could not identify themselves as a nation. As combined group they were dangerous to the crown and English rule. Banning their clan dress and colors was in a way forcing them to take on English garb and subdue them into submission to the King. Another somewhat odd but interesting reason, was to limit camouflage. Authorities claimed the plaid enabled men to blend in with the heather and conceal themselves for attack, either for robbery or murder. They even believed that the plaid allowed men to instantly join a rebellion. The kilt was used as their blanket, bed and clothing; giving them freedom to move about quickly. They didn't have to go home and pack, because their essential needs were already on their backs.
In 1782 the 1746 Ban was repealed. The Highland Dress returned with great excitement through all the classes of society. Even the Lowlanders began to wear tartans and kilts. In the painting "Military Promenade" by John Kay, the leaders of fashion in Edinburgh wear ankle length skirts reassembling kilts.
The occupation of Paris lead to some wonderful records of Highland Dress in 1815. An account of the occupation of Paris recounts that the Emperor of Russia requested a sergeant, a piper, and a private of each of the Highland regiments to parade before him in the Elysée Palace. He was particularly interested in Sergeant Thomas Campbell’s hose, gaiters and legs. After pinching the sergeants skin, “thinking I wore something under my kilt,” Campbell lifted his kilt “so that he might not be deceived.” Ah, the wit of the Scots. In the royal visit of 1822, both the Lord Mayor of London and King George the Fourth wore Highland Dress. This year marks the birth of Highland costume as the Scottish National Dress.

  • Kass McGann - 1997-2003 Reconstruction History
  • The BBC - History Of The Tartan
  • Dunbar, J. Telfer. History of Highland Dress. Philadelphia: Dufour Editions, 1964.
  • Glen, Duncan, ed. Whither Scotland? London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1971.
  • Grimble, Jan. Scottish Clans and Tartans. New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1973.
  • McClintock, Henry Foster. Old Irish and Highland Dress. Dundalk: Dundalgan Press, 1943.
  • Norris, Herbert. Costume and Fashion: The Evolution of European Dress through the Earlier Ages. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1924.